This week I have been to two very different literary festivals. The Ways with Words Festival has been running for over twenty years at the very beautiful Dartington Hall, and is well established. Sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, the speakers, not surprisingly, are authors who have published books that the arts editors consider to be important. The other smaller and more community minded was in the small market town of Chudleigh about six miles outside Exeter.
I was one of the organising committee at Chudleigh and we put together a programme that would appeal to both readers and writers. Ways with Words is primarily aimed at readers although many writers do attend in the hope of learning something about the craft of writing from some of the countries most successful authors. Nevertheless I found a common theme in both.
One of the workshops at Chudleigh was taken by Chris Waters, a poet and member of the Dartmoor Poets, who provoked us into thinking about landscape by looking at photographs taken by James Ravilious of places and people in north Devon in the 1960’s although they looked like they were from a much earlier period. Later the author Fay Sampson www.faysampson.co.uk talked about her novels which she said were inspired by place, indeed her latest series, the Aiden mysteries are set in the sacred places of Britain. At Dartington Jane Feaver the author of ‘An Inventory of Heaven’ talked about how difficult it was to write about the countryside unless you had lived in a landscape since birth and your family had lived there for generations. She described the land as having no sense of humour. So three authors and three different views on writing about nature.
Not the town in California, but the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in central
London, where there is an exhibition of clothes designed for some of the most famous characters in films.
Amongst the exhibits was the navy tailored suit, Meryl Streep wore when she played Mrs Thatcher and next to it the outrageous playsuit she wore in Mama Mia. One clearly spoke of power and control and the other of sex and outrageous behaviour; there is no way they could be interchanged.
Another exhibit explained how the clothing for Harrison Ford as Indianna Jones was designed and then aged to provide the lived in look of a 1940’s explorer. The designer had used as a blueprint, the early adventure films.
I began to think about the importance of clothing to establishing character. I do imagine them in various clothes until I find something I think is appropriate for their personalities and for different events in the story line. Obviously, a barrister will wear a wig and a gown over a dark suit, when she is in court, but what about when the character is not working.? Is she a jeans and T-short type or would she wear a skirt and blouse. What about a female detective? Would she wear trousers to work with a trench coat or something more feminine?
Do you imagine characters in different outfits and do you use the clothes to help define the character to the reader.
Having described what happened when Alan and I were attacked in our garden, I have tried to examine how I felt at the time and why I acted as I did. The image that comes back to me now is the moment when I realised one of the two men walking into our garden had a knife. I can see his face, dark-skinned but not black, round head, close-cropped hair and stubble round his chin and cheeks, the arm in dark clothing pointing forward at waist level and the glint from a dark metal blade. Then I can remember nothing until I felt the blade on the left hand side of my neck and realised the man was behind me. The overwhelming feeling was that I must escape to get help. I stood up and ran, screaming for help. As I banged on our neighbours’ doors, I was afraid of what was happening to Alan. I had visions of the two men standing over him while blood dropped to the ground. I began to panick when no one answered my cries.
Next one of the men ran out of our front door and along the small street, carrying my handbag. I continued to run in the same direction still seeking help, but as I did so , I became aware the robber was running towards a car parked round the corner of a a garden. I followed him, determined to get the number of the car, wanting something that would help to identify our assailants. I continued to repeat the number out loud, as I ran back towards our garden, Then a sense of relief finding Alan on his feet by our front door. He wrote the number in our visitors book. Our neighbours by now were all outside and the incident was over.
Those few seconds seemed like a life time, cancelling my credit cards and barring my mobile phone took more time. Putting my identity back together, obtaining new cards, new driving licence and getting a new phone working properly has taken the last two weeks. No doubt it will take longer before the assault becomes a distant memory. I don’t think I will ever forget it. It’s ironic really as I spent a lot of my working life representing similar young men, but then again I’ve witnessed so many violent kids snivelling in the corner of a cell, because they are about to go to prison and that gives me the strength to fight back at them. I know they are bullies who crumble as soon as someone stands up to them, but it is a risk and one better taken when there is an escape route for both you and them. Luckily we were uninjured.
On a positive note it gave me an insight into how the victim of a crime might feel and the range of emotions they might have, so I can use that in my writing.
The last two weeks have been so fraught that I have been unable to think straight never-mind being able to write on my blog. The ten days spent in our little bit of France, a maison du village close to the super-cute town of Uzes in southern France ended on a sour note. The market in Uzes is an amazing experience- this is how people shopped before department stores. Stalls selling everything, clothes, shoes,table clothes, cooking utensils and of course food. At this time of year the cherries are in season. They are a speciality of the region, dark red burlat cherries, not too sweet but not too sour. We bought a large punnet of them along with other fruit and vegetables.
After we got home, we made coffee and went to sit in our small garden, which is across a narrow lane. As I drank my coffee, I struggled to read Le Figaro, while my husband read the Times on his Kindle. A few minutes later, two men walked into the garden. At first I thought they were kids acting the fool, and I said to them, in my best French, that the garden was private. The two men kept on coming towards us, and I then realised the one leading had a knife pointing at me. Before I could move, he was stood next to me with the knife at my throat. Without thinking, I pushed my chair back. This must have suprised the man because he let go and I was free to run from the garden screaming ‘Help, Help’ (my French had totally escaped), into the square, and then along the narrow street to the door of one neighbour, where I banged on the gate and rang the bell, and then to another where I knocked frantically on the window, making the dog bark, but no one came out. At some stage whilst I was doing this, I saw one of the men come out of our house carrying my handbag. He must have gone onto the kitchen door and run through the house to the front door, where he emerged into the same street. I continued to run towards the gite at the end of the street where I knew about six young men were staying, with visions of my husband being attacked by two men, when I realised the man with my handbag was running towards a blue Renault parked around the corner. I followed him and saw the registratioin number of the car, which I kept on repeating aloud (it was CC 108 LT, if you want to know) To my relief as I turned back into our street I saw my husband on his feet, I was afraid I would find him in a pool of blood, and on a neighbours telphone to the police. More of the locals arrived on the scene as we tried to deal with the police and make calls to cancel credit cards and have my mobile barred.
I have had my handbag snatched before, but being in real danger of harm was a very unnerving experience and I am still very shaken. Sometimes life is not a bowl of cherries.
My first reaction to that question would be no, I didn’t harbour an ambition to write, but on reflection I did write stories when I was a teenager. Those really awful romances, girl meets boy, but they are torn apart by whatever came to mind, illness, parents moving etc. We’ve all been there. I used to make up stories with a friend as well. As we hung around the local park, we would invent new characters for whatever soap was popular, weave their stories into the narrative, and act out our parts.
Then I went to university and studied law, lots of reading and writing there, essays and law reports. That continued when I began work and had to take professional exams to qualify as a solicitor. Once I got past that stage, I wrote very detailed legal letters to clients and short speeches for the Magistrates Court. After a few years as a solicitor I wanted to be a barrister, because I longed to do bigger cases and to be able to appear in the Crown Courts and address juries. The transfer from one branch of the legal profession to the other wasn’t difficult, but for the first year or so, I didn’t have too much work to do and my afternoons were usually free. I found a number of ways to pass the time, exercise classes at The Pineapple Dance Centre in Covent Garden, visiting museums and galleries, going to matinees at the theatre and I began to write again. This time I tried to write legal thrillers, but they were anything but thrilling, so I gave up. As I became more senior and the cases I had were more complex, I was writing speeches to make to the jury. Each one a small story based on the facts that has been established during the trial. Of course advocates try to influence what the witnesses say in court, and part of the art is to put the most favourable interpretation on the evidence. So story telling again.
After I retired from the Bar, I wanted to write a family story because my two nieces were brought up in the USA and know very little about their English heritage – my brother is a non-communicator, whereas I know quite a lot about my family, some of it mythical, but then doesn’t every family have its legends. My attempt was just not interesting; I knew my nieces wouldn’t read it, so I realised I needed to get out of lawyer mode and learn to be more emotional – I find that difficult to say as I don’t think I lack feelings, it just being objective is so important for lawyers, but doesn’t make for interesting reading. Dry is the usual description of lawyers, it goes with the job.
That lead me to reading for an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter University. Now I don’t get bored with my writing – I write really good round robins at Christmas. I have written a novel, a courtroom drama/thriller and I hope to get it published, one way or another. Perhaps deep down I did always want to write.